Europe and the Election (1): Blair’s back, but wrong

by Stephen Tall on April 8, 2015

blair bicycle(You can read Europe and the Election (2): In defence of Nicola Sturgeon here.)

Europe, until yesterday, was the dog that hadn’t barked in this drab election campaign — a campaign in which, for all the media-saturation, journalists seem content to remain as process-obsessed, poll-watching by-standers.

But then Tony Blair spoke up, presumably as Europe is one of the few issues on which he can wholeheartedly back Ed Miliband’s handling of the issue as Labour leader. His speech is notable for actually dealing with a Big Issue in a mature way: fluently setting out arguments, which are very clearly ones he believes in, and without being prompted by internal polling. Listening, you could understand why Cameron and Osborne once called him the Master.

And yet… His arguments are (unusually, for him) quite flimsy. For example, he claims a Tory election win, leading to an in/out EU referendum, “will, for the first time since we joined Europe after years of trying unsuccessfully to do so, put exit on the agenda.” For the first time? Seriously? An EU exit is on the agenda, like it or not. It’s how we respond to the debate that matters now, not trying to maintain with a straight face no-one wants the debate.

It may pain Mr Blair to admit it, but the reality remains that David Cameron is currently the only political leader who stands a chance of leading a pro-EU campaign to victory — but, to do that, he had no choice but to promise to hold a referendum. If he was in Mr Cameron’s shoes he’d have done exactly the same.

How do I know? Because we’ve been here before. In 2004, Mr Blair hastily U-turned-on-a-cent when supporting a referendum on the EU constitution simply to spike the guns of Michael Howard’s 2004 Tory European campaign (incidentally, thereby handing Ukip its first major electoral breakthrough). So having a pop at the Tories for putting party before nation is just a little bit rich.

Another Blair argument is also pretty specious if you think about it for a moment: “Apparently we should have a referendum because its 40 years since we last had a vote. That is seriously an argument for doing something of this magnitude and risk? A sort of ‘keeping us on our toes’ thing? So should we do the same for NATO?” This ignores three things. First, our membership of the EU was confirmed through a referendum (thanks to a Labour government). Secondly, the EU impacts on our daily lives in a way that NATO quite obviously doesn’t. And, thirdly, the role and function of the EU has markedly changed in the intervening four decades.

My relationship status with Tony Blair should read “It’s complicated”.

I voted for him to be Labour leader in the 1994 contest. I voted for New Labour in 1997, my first general election as a voter. In many ways, I remain a (liberal) Blairite: I want fairness in my market economics and some healthy discipline in my well-funded public services. However, I also want transparently accountable, locally devolved, government — which increasingly Mr Blair regarded as a time-wasting distraction. And while I’m a fully signed-up liberal interventionist, like my CentreForum friend Nick Tyrone, I thought Mr Blair patently failed his own 1999 Chicago tests in setting out the case for declaring war against Iraq.

Still, for all his flaws, it was good to see Mr Blair back centre stage. He’s only 61, has much still to contribute to British public life and our politics has been poorer for his absence.

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